The National Champs! Just down the road from my house! (OK a 45min drive down the motorway, but still 'doable in a day') Ace!
Previous races at the venue have always been fun - in a mid winter cyclocross kind of way; grovelling climbs, descents, crazy cambers, 'rideable of you're good enough' attacks up and down the steep banks of the showground and even some nice views if you find the time mid race to raise your head and gaze off into the distance, certainly no boring shlep round a flat field, even when the place has been deluged with rain for weeks before.
I had no doubt the same sort of thing would be there again as I drove up at stupid-o-clock in the morning, and the view from the car park (that I was towed INTO, as the ground was so boggy!) suggested they'd pulled another winner out of the course making hat - even if on this occasion there was no trip into one of the fields 'round the back' of the venue where, during a previous NWCCA race, I'd come hurtling round a corner to be confronted with a slightly bewildered flock of sheep. Some of the great unanswered mysteries of my life were asked that day - "Erm, what do I do at this point? Do I stop? Will they decide to move for me? Should the sheep give way to the passing rider? Do they even have their timing chips on?" (Eventually they buggered off to a quieter corner of the field, but for a short while I was mid pack, or mid flock, more accurately, while they got themselves together!)
Anyway, a couple of practice laps revealed a surprisingly rideable route, though I could tell that with hundreds of riders charging across it for hours, it would undoubtedly deteriorate into something far sloppier, stickier and tougher to get through.
"That's fine" I thought to myself "I'm not the world's worst runner, I've just got to stay upright and do what I can" so, still happy enough with what was to come I rolled back to the quietly sinking van and set about warming up as the V50 & 60 guys charged about.
Pre race rituals are massively important for a lot of riders - me included and with the 'standard' timings rattling round my head I worked my way through the usual preparations happily enough until, as I popped the 'pre race' energy chews into my gob and started chewing (yes yes, I know there's no real need for extra energy stuff like that for a 40 minute effort, it's all just psychological) something suddenly felt horribly wrong. Energy chews aren't solid, crunchy and just weird usually. "What the hell is that? Oh my god my tooth has come out!" I scream (internally, I think, from outside of the now beached van there was probably just a slightly gurgly sounding whimper).I spit the half chomped chew out and see that a big chunk of the tooth is still attached to it. Frantic exploration of the now cavernous feeling gap where it used to be with my tongue reveals some sharp remnants still in the gum and (thankfully) no pouring blood or anything like that.
I've no contingency plan for what to do if this happens during my uber prepared warm up routine so, devoid of any better ideas, I just leave the tooth on the dashboard of the van and carry on getting ready with quite a lot of extra drooling going on.
A third row gridding position removes any sort of stress about getting a good start (which is odd, as it should really pile the pressure on) - I sort of know in advance that I'm going to get caught up in all sorts of first lap issues and tell myself to come to terms with it.
Other people do indeed make mistakes as we launch off down the start straight and onto the first (now a complete run) climb and I am a bit hampered behind them, but I make a few mistakes of my own - getting tangled in the course marker rope which takes ages to get free from, that sort of thing and to be honest my head's as busy thinking about just what toothless old codgers (like me, now) can eat. "Badly made, watery porridge?", "Massively overcooked rice?", "Those crappy weight watcher meal replacement shakes?" "Can't eat a nice crunchy honeycomb as a sweet treat with no gnashers, what sort of pudding to gummy people have?""Hey the ground has softened up loads with all the tyres churning it up, it's sort of like a weird...chocolate soup! That'll do! Chocolate soup!"
I probably confuse anyone around me by bursting into a grin as my tyres lose traction and I lurch off to start running across what would usually be a great place to put the power down and close the gaps in front...
I think I'm down in about 20th place at this point, way down on where I know I can (should...) be but, as the amount of running on the course seems to increase, I'm finding it difficult to regain places.
I'm not, as I told myself earlier, the world's worst runner - it's included in my usual race training, the sort of short-sharp off/on stuff that CX demands and I'm happy enough scampering up the usual unrideable slopes. I'm no specialist in it, though and, although I can close gaps to the riders in front of me on the riding sections (and bloody well love riding them, might I add!) I'm barely holding my own once everyone's off the bike. Then Rob Hope runs past me up the longest climb and I'm not even holding my own. I'm looking down at my legs and thinking "why aren't you doing what his legs are doing?!" as they barely break the surface of the sodden ground, tripping and stomping over what he appears to be skipping across.
the next lap and a half is spent on damage limitation as I try to not loose too much ground to him off the bike and close any gap once back on the bike.
The front end of the race is blooming miles ahead and with a bit of frustration growing, I end up making a stupid mistake, catching my bars on one of the metal course side barriers while trying to remount too early to get riding after another running section. The barrier doesn't move and I'm flung neck first into the barrier. It's not particularly painful, but suddenly finding myself nearly choking as I'm pinned between the tangled bike and the railing is a properly grim experience. I wrestle myself free and, after remounting only to find the bars pointing in completely the wrong direction, spend a few seconds getting myself and the bike together.
"Stop thinking about the race, just look for someone in front and try to get back to them" I repeat in my head, over and over.
By the last lap I've closed right down on someone in front of me (at this point I've no idea what position it's for, to my surprise I'm not really bothered, even if this is the National Champs). There's enough course side screaming, shouting and encouraging to make me feel a bit guilty that I'm not...well, winning the race, to be honest, it was worthy of it, but I get my head down and do what I can. Clogged cleats stop me from getting clipped back in on a couple of occasions as time runs out and the efforts of battling back repeatedly blunt any power I have to give, so I roll across the line a few dejected seconds behind my quarry.
11th in the end. A slightly disappointing use of the fitness I know I've got on a course that could have really suited me, with pit support that couldn't have been bettered by any professional team and so much course side encouragement that well, yeah, I would have like to have done better with BUT somehow it was still a brilliant experience. Somehow cross is always ace fun - once I'd got over not doing well, I was able to just enjoy closing down gaps my mistakes opened up and I certainly got a good bit of fell running practice done, even if fell running isn't something I'm planning on taking up any time soon. Plus I think I just invented chocolate soup! So there's something to work on :)
HUGE thanks to everyone who helped that race happen. A properly tough race worthy of finding champions, with great racing no matter where you were on the result sheet and an event that had all the 'background stuff' no-one racing really thinks about so well planned and executed that even the biblical weather couldn't put a stop to it. Amazing stuff.
HUGE HUGE thanks to Lee who's got me into such good shape that a disappointing Championships still sees me bothering the top ten when I spend so much time tangling myself up in the course markers! I was gridded 19th and despite everything I still managed to finish 8 places higher, while feeling genuinely delighted with how well I could ride (when I actually was riding!).
HUGE HUGE HUGE thanks to Angela, Steff and everyone who put up with my petulant bike flings throughout the race - every lap they were ready for me with a super clean (some would say cleaner than they were before the race) machine and seemingly endless enthusiasm. I couldn't get too miserable because, well, their attitude wouldn't allow it :)
I went back on the Sunday to help out a bit - a spot of getting everyone else's cars stuck in the mud instead of my own for a bit, followed by lots of lap/number counting. A genuinely fascinating and exciting look into how the races work behind the scenes and, even though it was a pretty small role in the grand scheme of things, really rewarding. :)